Paola Gavin
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Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Mowie Kay

‘He who has fed a stranger, may have fed an angel.’ The Talmud

Over their two thousand years of exile, Jews migrated across the world, taking their culinary heritage and traditions with them. Wherever they went, they adapted local and regional dishes to fit their own strict dietary laws and, as a result, Jewish food today encompasses an enormous variety of cuisines and cooking styles. This book is a personal collection of traditional Jewish vegetarian dishes from around the world. The recipes I have chosen have been passed on from mother to daughter for generations, and are quick, easy to prepare and healthy.

The Jewish concept of vegetarianism dates back to the days of the Garden of Eden. Under traditional Jewish law it was forbidden to kill an animal, just as it was to kill a man. In Judaism, as in Hinduism, the eating of meat is thought to increase the animal nature of man, and Jews are forbidden to eat any meat ‘in which its lifeblood still runs’ as this is thought to contain the spirit, emotions and instinct of the animal.

The diet of the ancient nomadic Israelites was predominantly vegetarian. Sheep, goats and cattle were too highly prized for their milk production to be killed for their esh, so livestock was mainly slaughtered for ritual practices. When the Hebrews ed to Egypt, they adopted new eating habits: Egyptians taught them the art of making leavened bread, and they soon shared the Egyptian love of cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.

After the Jews arrived in the Holy Land they became farmers, growing wheat, barley, rye and millet. The food of the poor was based on bread, pulses – especially lentils, broad beans and lupins - goat’s and sheep’s cheese, olives and olive oil, nuts, vegetables and herbs, and fresh and dried fruit. Food was usually sweetened with honey or syrup made from figs, carob beans or dates; at that time, Jericho was famous for its dates and was nicknamed ‘the city of palm trees’.

One ancient Jewish sect – the Essenes – were staunch vegetarians. The mostly male sect existed in the second century BC. It was formed in reaction to the rigidity of Jewish religion of that time. The word Essene derives from the Hebrew word esau, meaning ‘to be strong’, and presumably this referred to their strength of mind, the renunciation of material comforts and repression of sexual desire. John the Baptist is said to have been an Essene, and there are some people who believe that Jesus spent some of his early years with the Essene community.

There are four main Jewish communities across the world: the Mizachrim, or Easterners, whose ancestry is from the Middle and Near East, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and India; the Ashkenazim, who settled in the Rhineland after the diaspora and then migrated across Eastern Europe to Russia and the Ukraine; the Sephardim, or Spanish Jews, who settled around the Mediterranean aftƒer fleeing the Spanish Inquisition; and the Italkim, Italian Jews who were brought to Italy as slaves by the Roman Emperor Titus, following the destruction of the Second Temple.

Nevertheless, close trading and cultural connections mean that these cuisines often have similarities. For example, there are strong ties between the Jews of Tunisia and those of Livorno in Italy – which is reflected in their cooking. The Italian cuscussu is obviously of North African origin, while the Tunisian boka di dama (almond sponge cake) clearly has Italian roots.

Ultimately, Jewish cooking is food cooked according to the Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), that forbid the consumption of meat and milk at the same meal. In Orthodox Jewish households, separate plates, utensils, pots and pans are used for milk and meat. Milk products cannot be eaten after meat until an interval of time has lapsed. This can vary from 2 to 6 hours according to local tradition. Neutral food, such as milk-based bread, fruit, vegetables and unfertilized eggs can be consumed with meat or milk.

Researching this book has been a great opportunity to discover the history and culinary heritage not only of my own family – who originally came from Poland and Belarus – but also to trace the history and culinary traditions of Jews from so many di›fferent parts of the world. One thing we all have in common is the same love of food and cooking, something that lies at the heart of Jewish life.

Jewish holidays and festivals


The Sabbath is a weekly day of rest, beginning on Friday just before sundown and ending just after dark on Saturday, when the first three stars can be seen in the sky. During the Sabbath all work is forbidden. ‘Work’ covers thirty-nine actions, ranging from the lighting of a fire, cooking and baking, to the answering of the telephone. The Sabbath is always ushered in by the lighting of candles, before blessings are said, first over wine and then over a challah (braided egg-enriched bread) that is traditionally covered with a white cloth.

Sabbath meals need to be prepared, or at least partly cooked, before sunset on Friday, and ingenious ways were found to accommodate this. One-pot meals and stews that were cooked very slowly overnight were invented, such as the Sephardic dafina and Ashkenazi cholent. Other well-known Sabbath dishes include the Ashkenazi borscht (beetroot soup), krupnik (mushroom and barley soup) and kugels (sweet or savoury puddings); and the Sephardic huevos haminados (slow-baked eggs) and borekas, bulemas, pastels and filas (cheese or vegetable pastries). Italian Jews often prepare stu†ffed vegetables, caponata or minestrone soup for the Sabbath.

THE NEW YEAR - Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah falls around the end of September or early October (on the rst two days of the Hebrew month of Tishri), and marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance, which end with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Jews believe there is a Book of Life in heaven, in which all our thoughts, words and deeds are recorded. During the Days of Repentance, this book is examined and everyone’s fate for the coming year is decided.

Traditional foods served for Rosh Hashanah are black-eyed beans (peas), leeks, beet greens, gourds and dates. It is customary to eat challah or a slice of apple dipped in honey, and to say a prayer for a sweet New Year. Sometimes pomegranates are served, as their plentiful seeds symbolize good deeds for the year ahead. Ashkenazis also like to serve carrot tsimmes (a sweet stew) as a symbol of good luck, kugels, lekach (honey cake) and teiglach (pastry nuggets cooked in honey). Sephardic Jews prefer rice pilafs, almodrote (gratins) and pastries soaked in sugar syrup. Nothing sharp or bitter is served for New Year, nor anything black, because of its association with mourning.


Yom Kippur is the most solemn and holy day of the year, a day of fasting and reflection. The last meal before the fast is served in the late afternoon of the eve of Yom Kippur, and it never includes salty food, as it is not easy to fast when you are thirsty. In Egypt this meal often begins with an egg and lemon soup. Ashkenazis often prepare a broth with kneidlach (matzo balls) or kreplach (a kind of ravioli). In the Sephardic world, the fast is usually broken with a cold drink based on almonds, melon seeds, sour cherries or grenadine (a syrup made from pomegranates), followed by a light dairy meal that might include borekas or sambusak (spinach and cheese turnovers). Ashkenazis enjoy teiglach and fruit strudels. Sephardic Jews prefer rice pilafs, gratins (almodrote) and pastries soaked in honey, especially tishpishti, travados, sansathicos and baklava. Syrian Jews like to break the fast with little courgette (zucchini) and white cheese omelettes, tomato salad, olives and fresh fruit.


Sukkot starts five days after Yom Kippur and lasts for seven or eight days. The sukkah – meaning ‘booth’ – represents the huts the Jews lived in during their forty years of wandering in the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. To celebrate the festival, temporary huts are constructed outdoors and decorated with the branches of four symbolic plants: citron, willow, palm and myrtle. The roofs are made of separated fronds, so you can see the stars, and meals are usually eaten in the huts throughout the festival.

Simchat Torah – literally ‘the joy of the Torah’ – is the last day of Sukkot, when the annual reading of the fi€ve Books of Moses comes to an end. Sukkot is also known as the Harvest Festival and meals always include a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, as well as sweets and pastries made with nuts, apples, quinces, pumpkins or grapes. StuŒffed cabbage or cabbage strudel are often prepared by Ashkenazi Jews, while Italian Jews make a variety of vegetable soups and gratins. Sephardic communities in Morocco usually make couscous with vegetables or bean soups.


Chanukah falls around the middle of December (on the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kisler) and lasts for eight days. A celebration of freedom and bravery, Chanukah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem after the victorious uprising of Judah Maccabee against the Syrian Hellenists in 165 BC. When Judah entered the desecrated temple, he discovered just enough holy oil to light the menorah for one day, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight whole days until a fresh supply could be found. Ever since, Chanukah has been celebrated by lighting candles in the home, beginning with one candle and adding another each night until eight candles are lit. Fried food, such as Ashkenazi latkes (potato pancakes) or Sephardic fritikas (sweet or savoury fritters), are associated with Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil. The Sephardim of North Africa often make chakchouka (a dish of fried vegetables with eggs) and sfenj, zalabia and yoyos (sweet fried pastries fritters soaked in sugar syrup).


The minor festival of Tu Bi-Shevat falls around the end of January or early February (on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat), when the first buds appear on the trees in Israel. Sephardic Jews sometimes call it las Fruticas, the Festival of Fruits, as all kinds of fresh and dried fruit and nuts are eaten during the celebrations. Some families serve up to thirty different kinds of fruit. Traditionally, four glasses of wine are served with the evening meal: the first is white wine; the second contains white wine mixed with a little red wine; the third consists of red and white wine in equal quantities; and the fourth is red wine mixed with a little white. Each glass is accompanied by some bread, with fruit or nuts served in the following order: olive, date, grape, fig, pomegranate, lemon, apple, walnut, almond, carob and pear.


Purim falls around the middle of March (on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month of Adar) and lasts for two days. It commemorates the way Queen Ester of Persia outwitted the king’s advisor, Haman, who had decreed the killing of all Jews. Purim is traditionally celebrated with street parades, pageants and little improvised plays. Purim is the only festival in the Jewish year when it is a commandment, or mitzvah, to get drunk. Purim is always celebrated with a vegetarian meal because Queen Ester was vegetarian while she lived in her Persian palace, as the kitchen was not kosher. Iranian Jews usually prepare a kuku (omelette) or shirin polo (sweet rice), while Algerian Jews serve couscous au beurre (couscous with butter and broad beans). Traditionally all kinds of sweet pastries are made, especially the Ashkenazi hamantaschen (literally, ‘Haman’s pockets’) - triangular pastries filled with poppy seeds, raisins or prune jam; and the Sephardic diblas or orejas de Haman (literally, ‘Haman’s ears’), nut-‚filled pastries in sugar syrup. Italian Jews o†en make cheese or spinach ravioli, and sweet or savoury turnovers called buricche.


Passover begins in March or April (on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nisan) and lasts for seven or eight days. It celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. To mark the fact that the Jews left† in such haste that their bread had no time to rise, it is forbidden to eat any leavened foods (hametz) or fermenting agents like yeast, or grains that can be fermented, such as wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. Homes are always spring-cleaned in preparation for Passover and all cooking utensils, cutlery and dishes are packed away and replaced by a fresh set that is reserved exclusively for this holiday.

Special foods are made for the ritual meal, or Seder, that takes place on the fi‚rst two nights of Passover: roasted or boiled eggs are served as a symbol of sacrifice and rebirth; and maror (bitter herbs) dipped in salt or vinegar symbolize the bitterness of slavery. Haroset (a dried fruit and nut paste) represents the mortar the Jews used for building when they were slaves in Egypt, and of course matzo is a reminder that there was no time for the bread to rise before they made good their escape.

The strict dietary restrictions that apply during Passover have produced an enormous variety of dishes made with matzo meal, potato flŠour and rice flŠour. The Jews of Turkey make delicious baked omelettes or gratins with potatoes, leeks, eggplants, courgettes, Swiss chard or pumpkin. All kinds of desserts and cakes are made with ground almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts, such as Eastern European chremslach or bubeleh (matzo-meal pancakes), Italian scodelline (rich almond custards), German and Austrian nusstorten (nut cakes), and koopeta (nut candy) from Greece.


Shavuot falls at the end of May or beginning of June (on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan), fift­€y days or seven weeks a€fter Passover (Shavuot means ‘weeks’), and it coincides with Pentecost, meaning ‘­€fiftieth’ in Greek. It marks the time when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and is also a harvest festival, celebrating the ripening of the ­first fruit on the trees in Israel. Traditionally a dairy meal is served, followed by plenty of fresh fruit. White foods, such as rice or white cornmeal, are oft€en eaten as they symbolize purity. Foods prepared for Shavuot include the Ashkenazi cheese blintzes (­filled pancakes); Syrian cheese sambusak (turnovers) and kalsonnes (ravioli); Sephardic borekas, boyos or filas (savoury pastries); and Algerian couscous au beurre (couscous with butter and broad beans).

Tisha Be-Av

The minor festival of Tisha Be-Av falls around the middle of July or early August (on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av); it commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC, and of the Second Temple in 70 AD. The three weeks before Tisha Be-Av are a period of mourning - oft€en called the schwarzen wochen (‘black weeks’) by Ashkenazi Jews – when no weddings or other festivities are celebrated, and no new items of clothing may be worn. During this period, observant Jews also abstain from eating meat or drinking wine, except on the Sabbath. Vegetarian or dairy meals are prepared, especially dishes with lentils – traditionally associated with grief – such as Moroccan harira (lentil and rice soup), Syrian mujaddara (lentils and rice with caramelized onions) and Greek lentejas a la djiudia (green lentils simmered with onions and tomatoes).

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